Way-Too-Early Rankings of Top Players for 2023 NHL Free Agency

Adam GretzDecember 23, 2022

Way-Too-Early Rankings of Top Players for 2023 NHL Free Agency

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    BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 19: Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) holds the puck on the power play during a game between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers on December 19, 2022, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Even though the 2023 NHL free-agency signing period is still months away with more than half of the 2022-23 season (and all of the Stanley Cup Playoffs) remaining, it is still not too early to take a look ahead to the potential class of available players.

    It is a very top-heavy group of forwards, led by Boston Bruins winger David Pastrňák.

    Here we are going to take a look at him and the rest of the top 15 potential free agents this summer.

    When ranking players, we are taking into account a couple of things:

    1. How likely is each player to be worth the next contract they receive? So for example, an older player who is still a top player and might only get a one- or two-year deal (example: Joe Pavelski) might get a lift over a younger player whose contract might be longer-term and riskier (Andrei Kuzmenko).
    2. Long-term production and how likely a player is to continue duplicating what they are currently producing. That will put players like David Pastrnak, Dylan Larkin and Bo Horvat closer to the top.

    Yes, some of these players will ultimately re-sign with their current teams, but it is still worth seeing whose stock has dropped a little and whose is rising.

    We are working in reverse order, counting down from 15 to the top spot. Here is who makes the cut so far.

15. John Klingberg

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    ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 26: John Klingberg #3 of the Anaheim Ducks controls the puck during the second period of a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Honda Center on October 26, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    After not getting the long-term deal he wanted in last year's free-agent class, John Klingberg bet on himself by signing a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks.

    The Ducks have been the worst team in the league, while Klingberg has struggled to put up some of the numbers we are used to seeing from him throughout his career.

    While he is scoring goals at a rate right in line with his career numbers, his assist numbers have taken a massive hit. That might be because he is surrounded by one of the most offensively starved lineups in the league, which also couldexplain why his possession numbers are among the worst of his career.

    That should not make teams shy away from him, though.

    He still figures to be one of the top defenders available, and it will be interesting to see what he does in the second half of the season if he gets moved to a contender. Given Anaheim's struggles and Klingberg's status as a pending UFA, he seems like a near-lock to be traded. Getting an opportunity to play with a playoff-caliber roster and better offensive talent might help him get back on track.

    He didn't suddenly forget how to play hockey this season. This is just a bad fit for everybody involved. He enters his age-31 season next year and might be a long-term risk, especially if you are counting on him to lead your defense, but there should still be some value as a No. 2 or 3 defender on a shorter deal.

14. Andrei Kuzmenko

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    VANCOUVER, CANADA - DECEMBER 5: Andrei Kuzmenko #96 of the Vancouver Canucks warms up during their NHL game against the Montréal Canadiens at Rogers Arena December 5, 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

    Andrei Kuzmenko has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dismal Canucks team.

    After spending his entire professional career to this point in the KHL, Kuzmenko made the jump to the NHL this season at 26 years old and is off to an excellent start. Entering play Thursday, he had 26 points in his first 30 games, making him one of the Canucks' top scorers. He has also been one of their best possession numbers, having a shot attempt share of better than 50 percent when he is on the ice and posting some of the best underlying numbers on the team.

    He has been excellent at both ends of the ice and has emerged as a legitimate NHL forward.

    He is also a pending unrestricted free agent after this season.

    His actual on-ice play and production might be good enough to put him a little higher on this list, but he has only played 30 games in the NHL at this point, making him still somewhat of an unknown. He has also been a regular next to Elias Pettersson, which is almost certainly helping his production a little bit.

    If he can maintain this level of play all year, though, he might be a top-10 free agent by the time the summer rolls around.

13. Jonathan Toews

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 09:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates against the Winnipeg Jets on December 09, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Even if the Chicago Blackhawks do not trade Jonathan Toews before this year's NHL trade deadline, there is no good reason for either side to want to return next season.

    The Blackhawks are facing a lengthy rebuild that is not even close to reaching its conclusion, they have already been a subpar team for more than four years now, and Toews is a fraction of the player he was at his peak. Loyalty and nostalgia would be the only argument for the Blackhawks to extend him. He simply no longer fits in with the current direction of the team.

    That does not mean he could not still make a positive impact elsewhere, though.

    Toews is not going to be a No. 1 center for a Stanley Cup contender at this point in his career, but he is still probably a 45- or 50-point player over 82 games with some value defensively.

    That still works as a second- or third-line center for a contender and will make him an attractive option for teams looking for depth down the middle.

12. Semyon Varlamov

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    NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 09: New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov (40) defends the net during the National Hockey League game between the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils on December 9, 2022 at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    This is a very thin crop of potential free-agent goalies, but Semyon Varlamov figures to be at the top of the group.

    He has spent the past few years on Long Island and is currently the backup to Ilya Sorokin. That duo has been one of the best goalie tandems in the league and has played a big role in keeping a very flawed Islanders team competitive during their time together.

    Since joining the Islanders he has a .918 save percentage in 124 appearances. Among the 67 goalies who have appeared in at least 50 games since the start of the 2019-20 season, that save percentage would place him among the top 10 in the league.

    The downside to him: He is going to be 35 next season and has not played more than 36 games in a season since 2019-20, which might make him a bit of a risk as a team's No. 1 option.

    He might be best suited splitting starts in a platoon role. But as he has shown with Sorokin and the Islanders, he is very capable of doing that. It might even make some sense for the Islanders to bring him back and keep that tandem together given how reliant they are on it to compete.

11. Shayne Gostisbehere

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    TEMPE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 09: Shayne Gostisbehere #14 of the Arizona Coyotes shoots the puck during the second period of the NHL game at Mullett Arena on December 09, 2022 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Flyers were so tired of Shayne Gostisbehere and so desperate to get rid of the remainder of his contract that they gave Arizona a couple of draft picks to take him (for no return) prior to the start of the 2021-22 season. It was a straight salary dump.

    It might have been the best thing that happened to Gostisbehere's career individually because he has completely rebuilt his value over the past year-and-a-half, to the point where he might be the most attractive defenseman on the open market this summer.

    Maybe that says something about the quality of defensemen that are going to be part of this free-agent class, but it also says a lot about how Gostisbehere has played with the Coyotes.

    As of Thursday he had recorded 74 points in his first 113 games with the team, which averages out to a 54-point pace per 82 games.

    He's not going to be the No. 1 guy who leads a championship defense, but he can still provide a ton of offense from the blue line and make an impact if you shelter him in the right role. There is a lot of value in that for a contending team. The weak class of defensemen should also help Gostisbehere's potential earning power.

10. Patrick Kane

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    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 13: Chicago Blackhawks Right Wing Patrick Kane (88) skates with the puck in action during a game between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks on December 13, 2022 at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Patrick Kane is in the exact same position with the Blackhawks as Toews is.

    Great player in his prime, key part of a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Chicago, but also at a point where his presence is no longer needed for where the team is going. There is also no reason for Kane to want to be back given how many bad years are probably still ahead for Chicago.

    Here's the thing about Kane: He is still a big name, he is still a top talent offensively and he will still put up some numbers, especially on the power play. But he's not going to bring you any sort of value when the puck is not on his stick, and he might even be a liability defensively.

    But he can still score, and a lot of teams will value that. He only has four goals through the first 31 games this season, but he is also being crushed by an unsustainably low 3.5 percent shooting percentage. That will increase at some point, and he should still be able to rack up assists with talented linemates.

    He is not going to be the focal point or key building block for a contender, but he will still provide some scoring.

9. Alex Killorn

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    TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 3: Alex Killorn #17 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at Amalie Arena on December 3, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

    The constant salary-cap crunch they operate under has forced the Tampa Bay Lightning to say goodbye to a lot of really good players over the years. A lot of players who have won Stanley Cups. Alex Killorn will probably be the next name added to that list this summer.

    The Lightning already have more than $79 million committed to just 13 players for next season, which makes it difficult to see how they could possibly re-sign Killorn.

    Tampa Bay typically re-signs the players it wants to keep a year before it has to. We saw that this past offseason when it re-signed Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Černák to eight-year extensions. Killorn was not among the players to get a new deal, which probably means the Lightning are going to get what they can out of him this year and allow him to hit the free-agent market.

    It is easy for Killorn to get lost in the shadow of all of the stars and talent in Tampa Bay, but he has been a critical member of its success over the past eight years. A responsible two-way player and also somebody you can pencil in for close to 20 goals and 45 points per 82 games.

    His age (33) might scare some teams off and prevent him from getting a long-term deal, but he will have a robust market.

8. Tristan Jarry

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 15:  Tristan Jarry #35 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends the net against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the game at PPG PAINTS Arena on October 15, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

    Tristan Jarry seems unlikely to actually make the free-agent market.

    He is not only the Penguins' starting goalie, he is their only logical long-term option and has started to prove his worth as the team's starter. Had he not been injured in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago, they at the very least would have had a significantly better chance to beat the New York Rangers in the first round.

    He already has two All-Star game appearances under his belt and has a .918 save percentage since the start of the 2019-20 season, which is tied for 10th in the league.

    He would easily be the top goalie available if he were to reach the open market, not only because of his production but also the fact that he will still only be 28 years old at the start of next season.

    He figures to be a top priority for general manager Ron Hextall to re-sign.

7. Ryan O'Reilly

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 12: St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly (90) as seen during a NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues on December 12, 2022, at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Ryan O'Reilly is having a down year for the Blues, but who is not having a down year in St. Louis this season? It has been a rough start for everybody involved for one of the most disappointing teams in the league.

    He also has plenty of time this year to turn that performance around, and he still brings way more value to the table than just his offense.

    O'Reilly is one of the best two-way centers in the NHL and has finished in the top five of the Selke Trophy voting (best defensive forward) in each of the past four seasons while also scoring at a top-line rate. As an added bonus, he plays a tough defensive game while also being one of the least penalized players in hockey. He brings a ton of value.

    Given the way the season has gone for the Blues, they could be very active at the trade deadline, and O'Reilly could be one of the players on the move.

    He will also be a very sought-after center on the open market if he makes it to free agency.

6. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci

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    Boston, MA - October 1: Boston Bruins David Krejci, left, is hugged by Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
    John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

    I am combining Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci together because they are almost their own separate class of free agents.

    It seems like a given that they are going to either re-sign with the Boston Bruins, or they are not going to play in the NHL.

    That especially seems to be the case with Bergeron, who does not seem to have any desire to play for a team that is not the Bruins, while Krejci only seemed willing to return to the NHL this season if it was with Boston.

    But they are still pending free agents, and they are both still outstanding players.

    Their presence back in Boston this season as the Bruins' 1-2 punch down the middle has them on top of the NHL standings and looking like a team whose Stanley Cup window is still very much open. The Bruins do not have much center depth beyond these two, and given how well they are both still capable of playing you have to imagine the team would absolutely love to have them back next season.

    They are not really slowing down, either. Even in their late 30s (37 for Bergeron and 36 for Krejci), they are both still on pace for more than 68 points over an 82-game season.

5. Joe Pavelski

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    DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 08: Dallas Stars Right Wing Joe Pavelski (16) passes the puck during the game between Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars on December 8, 2022 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Joe Pavelski might be one of the most underappreciated players of this era, and he is still going strong for the Dallas Stars. He has a shot at 500 goals and 1,000 points in his career and is really only lacking a Stanley Cup championship to complete what has quietly been a borderline Hall of Fame career.

    Entering play on Thursday, he has 113 points in 116 games since the start of the 2021-22 season (in his age 37 and 38 seasons) and has been a key part of one of the NHL's best lines alongside Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz.

    His age will make him a short-term solution for somebody, but every contending team and Stanley Cup hopeful in the league should have an interest in him given his scoring ability and defensive play. He does everything well.

4. Vladimir Tarasenko

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 12: St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) as seen during a NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues on December 12, 2022, at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    During the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, injuries made it seem like Tarasenko's time as a top-line player was done.

    St. Louis appeared desperate for another team to take on his contract. But there was no trade, and the Seattle Kraken also passed on taking him after he was exposed in the expansion draft.

    Some of those other teams may be kicking themselves, though, as Tarasenko racked up 82 points in 75 games last season and has been one of the Blues' few bright spots this season. Entering play on Thursday, he was on pace for 24 goals and 68 points this season.

    But just as with O'Reilly, the Blues' struggles as a team could send them into seller mode at the deadline. Are the Blues still close enough to Stanley Cup contention they should look to re-sign a couple of veteran forwards on the other side of 30? Or should they try to cash in before the trade deadline and see what future assets they can bring in?

    If his future is not with the Blues, Tarasenko should be one of the top free-agency options this summer.

3. Bo Horvat

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    VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 17: Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat (53) waits for a face-off during their NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Arena on December 17, 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Whether it is at the trade deadline or in free agency, it seems likely that Bo Horvat's time with the Vancouver Canucks is going to come to an end sooner rather than later. Contract talks have reportedly not gone well, with insider Frank Seravalli telling Sportsnet 650 that Horvat's camp were frustrated over the summer over what they considered a lowball offer.

    Horvat is one player who has not been a disappointment for the Canucks this season. He is on track for a career scoring year and continues to emerge as an excellent top-line center.

    For his career, he has averaged 26 goals per 82 games played, a number that increased to 34 goals per 82 games over the past four years (94 goals in 226 games). That would make him a top-line producer on the majority of teams in the NHL and one of the most productive free agents on the open market.

    He is also still only going to be 28 years old this summer, which should give him several years of top-line production ahead. Spending big on a free agent is a risk unless it is a top-line player under the age of 30, and Horvat checks both of those boxes.

2. Dylan Larkin

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    DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 21: Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings watches the action from the bench against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on December 21, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
    Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

    It has been a long rebuild for the Detroit Red Wings, and they still seem to have a ways to go before they return to the top of the NHL. Dylan Larkin has been the one constant bright spot during this transition era, and he could be playing his way into a pretty significant contract over the next few months.

    The only question is whether or not that contract will continue his career in Detroit or take him elsewhere.

    Larkin is still only 26 years old, is one of the fastest skaters in the league and has blossomed into a near point-per-game player the past two years. That combination of age, speed and production is going to make him a very attractive player if he goes to free agency. Losing him would also be a pretty big blow to the Red Wings' rebuild.

    Larkin is not the only player the Red Wings have a big decision with this offseason.

    Tyler Bertuzzi, who has been limited to just a handful of games this season and has also been a top producer in recent years, is also a pending unrestricted free agent along with Pius Suter, Oskar Sundqvist, Adam Erne, Olli Määttä, Jordan Oesterle, Jake Walman and Alex Nedeljkovic.

    The Red Wings do have nearly $40 million in salary-cap space to play with given all of the money coming off the books, but they still have to weigh the pending unrestricted free agents with the other necessary improvements that are needed to become a playoff team again.

1. David Pastrnak

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    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: David Pastrnak #88 of the Boston Bruins celebrates his first period goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets at TD Garden on December 17, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by China Wong/NHLI via Getty Images)
    China Wong/NHLI via Getty Images

    Players like Pastrnak almost never make it to free agency.

    Pastrnak would not only be the top free agent available, he would probably be able to name his price after being one of the league's biggest bargains the past six years on what has been a laughably team-friendly $6.6 million cap hit for the Bruins.

    Pastrnak is not only still in the prime of his career, he is one of the best all-around players in the league and one of its most dominant offensive forces.

    Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Pastrnak ranks among the top 15 players in the league in goals scored, total points, even-strength goals, power-play goals, game-winning goals and shots on goal.

    He does everything well, will only be 27 years old at the start of the 2023-24 season, and is the very definition of a franchise player.

    Unless he willingly decides to take less money to stay in Boston (which always seems to happen with the Bruins), he should be a $10 million-per-year player at a minimum. The only question is whether it is with Boston or another team.